Poverty, corruption, and “Most Holy Death” grip Mexico, photojournalist says

Decades of government corruption, drug trafficking and unethical free trade agreements with the U.S. have sparked the re-emergence of La Santísima Muerte, "Most Holy Death," which is beginning to pervade throughout Mexican culture as a fashionable, deified, archetype, according to a Mexican photojournalist.

Assistant Professor of Communication Scott Carrier invited Julián Cardona, a photojournalist from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to speak and present a slideshow of his work at the first installment of the Real World Lecture Series on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. in the Ragan Theater.

For the past 15 years, Cardona has been wielding his camera as a weapon in the fight against poverty, corruption and the rampant horrors now being wrought upon Juárez’ citizens.

"Around 1965, four or five companies in my city wanted to eliminate tariffs, so they lobbied with the U.S.," Cardona said.

"Today, Juárez is the biggest manufacturing center for U.S. products. These companies still own most of Juárez."

Cardona said that the whole of Juárez, which has a population of around 2 million people, is owned and controlled by five or six wealthy families. The rest of the city languishes in a state of wretched poverty.

Veronica Lopez, a communication major well known for being the first to institute a Spanish version of NetXNews, served as an interpreter for Cardona.

Nevertheless, Cardona’s English was adequate. Cardona explained that he might need an interpreter to help him explain concepts that exceed his English mastery.

Though the language barrier did render the presentation a little choppy at times, through the collective efforts of Cardona, Carrier, and Lopez, the message came across.

Cardona said the drug trade came to Mexico in the early 1980s after the Drug Enforcement Administration successfully halted key transportation routes through the state of Florida.

Seeking new routes into the U.S., Columbian drug cartels established three main drug trafficking arteries through Mexico that entered the U.S. via Tijuana, Juárez, and Nuevo Laredo, respectively.

Each route was, and still is, controlled by a different cartel.

More than 10 years before NAFTA, two despotic, major global economic forces now found themselves juxtaposed in Juárez, international corporations on one hand, the drug trade on the other, with the citizens caught in the middle.

"We in Juárez had the experience of being globalized," Cardona said. 

Starting in the ’60s and ’70s, factories built in Juárez brought with them a flood of migrants, mostly women, from rural areas in the Mexican interior seeking work.

According to Cardona, this sparked something of a sexual revolution. "In the factories there are dozens of women to one man," Cardona said. "One lucky guy."

According to Cardona, it would be virtually impossible to purchase consumer products in the U.S. that do not have at least some components manufactured in Juárez maquiladoras. "Every seven seconds they make a computer," Cardona said. "Every 15 seconds a TV set."

Some scenes depicted in Cardona’s slide show seemed eerily reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; propaganda that read "world class is my goal" broadcast on the very TV sets workers labor to assemble, women getting dressed in factory locker rooms for an after-work night on the town that, according to Cardona, may include prostitution to supplement their $5-per-day income.

Cardona said that living expenses in Mexico are roughly 80- to 90- percent of living expenses in the U.S. This is contrary to the popular myth that attempts to justify the exploitation of Mexican workers by claiming that Mexicans can actually live on $5 per day.

An average Juárez human’s life, particularly the lives of women, has been cheapened to the point that kidnapping, rape and murder now abound, while corrupt police turn a blind eye and do nothing.

Black crosses painted over a pink background are commonly found on buildings, billboards and telephone poles throughout the city signifying locations where women have disappeared from, or where their bodies have been found. "Poverty makes crime rampant," Cardona said.

The illegal culture and illegal business that has spread throughout Mexico over the last 40 years is now protected by an illegal saint: La Santísima Muerte, "Most Holy Death."

There is no consensus regarding her origin. While some believe she is the re-emergence of a pre-Columbian, Aztec, death-worshipping cult centered around the female deity Mictecacihuatl, "Lady of the land of the dead." Others see her as an amalgam of Catholicism and Aztec paganism, and still others believe she is something new altogether. What is not in dispute is her class-transcendent popularity in Mexico.

"She is an illegal saint," Cardona said. "She is not accepted. She is not official. But she is the most popular now. You can find her in the U.S. more often."

"We’re talking about illegality and legality; and in Juárez, illegality is all that has existed," Cardona said.

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